If you were wondering which hotel is the most superstitious in London, look no further than the Savoy Hotel. It is of course known the world over for being a byword for opulence, pandering to the obscenely rich and illustrious ever since it opened its doors to the privileged on 6th August 1889. However, those of you who have ever had the fortune to dine here may have been made aware of a superstition which dates back over a hundred years.
Let me take you back to early 1898. The Savoy was less than a decade old, and despite being a great financial success, attracting the aristocracy and even the Prince of Wales to its dining rooms, the world renowned manager Cesar Ritz and head chef Auguste Escoffier had just been fired by the hotel for financial misconduct.
At almost exactly the same time, 34 year old Woolf Joel, one of the famously rich Joel brothers who gained their wealth through diamond and gold mining in South Africa, arranged a dinner party for fourteen guests (including himself) at the Savoy. At the last minute one of the guests pulled out, leaving thirteen seated at the table. The conversation turned to superstition, and it was suggested that whoever left the table first would be cursed with misfortune. Woolf Joel was that man, or so it would appear, for as soon as he returned to Johannesburg on 14th March he was shot and killed. He left an estate worth £1.2m and was transported back to London, then was buried at the Willesdon United Synagogue Cemetery.
However, the extraordinary reasons for the murder clearly indicated that there was more than bad luck involved. At the ensuing trial the gunman Baron Von Veltheim alleged that he had entered into an agreement with the Joel Brothers and their uncle Barney Barnato to kidnap the South African president J.P.Kruger. When the brothers broke the agreement, Von Veltheim shot Woolf Joel in self-defence. It was on these grounds that he was acquitted. However, a sensational second trial occurred a full decade later in London after Von Veltheim had spent the intervening years blackmailing his co-conspirators. On this occasion the gunman was sentenced to twenty years in prison.W
The Savoy Hotel was sufficiently moved to take a respectful stance in this matter and mark Woolf Joel’s murder by the simple act of offering groups of thirteen who dined an opportunity to be joined by a member of staff for the duration of the meal. But of course this created its own issues regarding confidentiality and privacy, so eventually it was decided to create a lucky mascot for these occasions.
In the mid-1920s the artist Basil Ionides was commissioned to design a large wooden cat which he duly carved from a single piece of London plane tree. It was black and christened Kaspar, and from 1927 at each party of thirteen this lucky four legged friend sat in the unlucky chair to ensure no misfortune would visit any subsequent guests. A napkin was tied around his neck, and he was served each course of the meal, with all the correct china, glass and cutlery suitable for the occasion. And to this day, this odd practice is still continued!
Being rather familiar with the Savoy Hotel, Winston Churchill was a known admirer of Kaspar. Towards the rear of the hotel is the luxurious Pinafore Room, where the ‘Other Club’ meets once a fortnight on a Thursday evening. This dining club was established by Churchill and the conservative Member of Parliament FE Smith in 1911 after they were not invited to join the distinguished dining club ‘The Club’.
The original membership was of twelve Liberals, twelve Conservatives and 12 ‘distinguished outsiders’ and has gone on to include members as diverse and similar as John Profumo, HG Wells, Aristotle Onassis and Tony Blair. Kaspar is expected to be present at all of these meals. However, on one occasion he was stolen by officers of no.609 West Riding Squadron and installed in their mess but then he was smuggled back to avoid punishment.
A few weeks later he was taken again by the same squadron, this time in a daring raid named ‘Operation Kaspar’. On this occasion, one of the group became the decoy, stuffing his tunic with empty bottles. He was challenged by the head waiter. Another officer took a heavy bag containing all sorts of items and was promptly searched. Meanwhile the squadron’s intelligence officer snuck off with Kaspar under his raincoat. On this escapade Kaspar sustained a few scratches and a scuffed ear, so it took a little bit of surgery before he was once more restored to the Pinafore room. Churchill was said to have been delighted!
So the next time you walk along the Strand and your companion wonders why the two shrubs at the front have been given a feline appearance, and why the restaurant is called Kaspars, you will have one of the more bizarre stories of London to fall back on…